Blossoming Knowledge

– 10 Tips After 40 Years of Gardening

– Written by Barbie Colvin –

We gardeners are shaped by the gardeners we meet along the way. We share experiences, compare stories, and adjust our practices based on what we’ve seen, heard, and learned from others. I’ve been gardening for more than 40 years and have been fortunate enough to meet some great gardeners. All have influenced me, either philosophically in how I look at gardening or in how I tackle a project. After more than four decades of digging in the dirt, here are my top ten tips for being a successful gardener:

  1. Feed your soil. As a child, I remember my dad making a trek to the feed store every Spring and returning with a bag or two of alfalfa meal. My mom scratched it around her roses and dad used it in our tiny vegetable garden. After the first flush of roses faded and the first little tomatoes were formed, they made batches of “alfalfa tea” and watered the plants with this brew. As it turns out, alfalfa meal is an all natural, organic fertilizer that replenishes sugar, starches and proteins. It seems to be more and more difficult to find alfalfa meal, but if you can find some at your local feed store, try it in your garden for some lush growth.
  2. Use Milorganite throughout your garden: Milorganite has been around for almost 100 years. The name Milorganite stands for Milwaukee Organic Nitrogen because it originated as dried sludge from the Milwaukee Waste Department. Recycling at its best! Mom used it around all of her flowers. Dad used it on his prized tomatoes and on our postage stamp sized lawn, which seemed to green up almost overnight. They used it twice a season, as I do today. I doubt either of them knew the chemical composition, but the slow release of the nitrogen plus the 4 percent iron makes for a consistently well fertilized garden.
  3. Update your gardening tools: The best “new” tool in my arsenal is a battery-operated reciprocating saw, like a Sawz-All. I purchased a pruning blade for it and I can cut down, limb up or prune almost anything in my garden. With a spare battery, I can spend an entire Spring day pruning with no real effort. If your “hand-powered” pruning saw is wearing you out, this is a must have tool.
  4. Keep a gardening journal: Rather than trying to remember when I last fertilized, what product I used, or how much I need to buy, I note it in my weekly garden journal. How much mulch do I need for the front bed? When do I need to spray for Ambrosia Beetles? When did we pick our first tomato? My journal is the repository for all of that and so much more. Every Sunday I carve out a quiet hour and record the week’s weather, what’s blooming, plants added, and those removed. I note chores completed and those hanging over my head. Stop trying to remember the details and just write it down.
  5. Identify and diagnose the problem correctly before you “fix” it: Most of the time when I see a wilted plant, my assumption is that it is dry, so my first inclination is to water it. However, both dry and drowning plants will wilt. Before you water a wilted plant, fertilize a lackluster plant, or spray with a chemical, take the appropriate steps to assure that what you think is wrong is indeed the actual problem. You will save time and money if you carefully assess problems before you jump to a conclusion and potentially do more harm than good.
  6. Clorox wipes are your best friend: A tub of Clorox wipes comes with me for a day in the garden. When my ankle starts stinging from fire ant bites or I realize that I grabbed Poison Ivy, it’s Clorox wipes to the rescue. When I’ve vigorously used them immediately after an “incident,” the resulting bite or rash has been nonexistent. They are also great for wiping your pruning shears between cuts when dealing with mealy bugs, scale, and other pests that can easily be transferred from one shrub to another.
  7. Accept who you are as a gardener: Photos of an English garden or a beautiful rose bed can be so enticing. Before you get swept away in the moment, realistically assess how much time you can spend in the garden versus how much time your garden needs. If there’s a big gap, reconsider your gardening plan. As I’ve gained more birthday candles, I’ve traded rose bushes for conifers and woody ornamentals for perennials. I’m not willing to reduce the size of my garden, so the tradeoff is filling my garden will less labor-intensive plants.
  8. The right time to prune is when you have the time to prune: Of course, there is an ideal time to prune flowering shrubs, but if that ideal time doesn’t coincide with your personal calendar, then prune when you can, accepting the consequences. Trimming azaleas in February will certainly remove just about every flower bud, but if you’ve missed pruning them for the past four years because you are too busy with other chores and obligations, then give up the flowers but get the job done.
  9. You can still get to heaven even if you pitch a plant or two: Real estate is at a premium in my garden. “Be good or be gone” is my motto for every plant. If you have an underperformer or two in your garden, dig it and pitch it. It only feels bad for a moment or two, or maybe not at all!
  10. More is not always better, especially with chemicals, fertilizer and crowding plants. More is better, however, when it comes to chocolate!

– Barbie Colvin completed the Master Gardener Program in 2003. She is a trustee at Lockerly Arboretum in Milledgeville and chairs the American Conifer Society’s Reference Garden program throughout the United States. She began taming the woods of her Milledgeville garden in 1998. Since that time, she has carved out a 4- to 5-acre garden, protected from the roaming deer by an 8-foot’ fence. Her garden includes significant collections of Japanese Maples, conifers, hydrangea, azaleas, agaves, and just about anything else that catches her eye.




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